There are photographs from his days managing the Rochester Red Wings, San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles. In one of the pictures, the man known to everyone as Alto is arguing with an umpire. When a visitor points to the photograph, the baseball lifer shakes his head and smiles. “I did have a few differences of opinion with the men in blue in my time,’’ Alto says, chuckling.
On the wall behind his bed, there’s a plaque shaped like a home plate from the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame, and on another wall hangs a rectangular plaque from the Florida State League, where Alto began his career as a $6,000-a-year Cleveland Indians prospect in 1951. The Indians and their Daytona Beach Islander, Class D minor-league ball club got their money’s worth that season as he hit safely in a league-record 36 consecutive games while topping all batters with a .341 average.
“I got off to a pretty good start,’’ he says, when asked about that rookie season.
Off to the side, away from the souvenirs from his storied, 59-year professional baseball career as a player, coach, manager, general manager, consultant and broadcaster, rests a folded-up walker and a bag filled with light Velcro hand weights. These are reminders of Alto’s present. They have replaced bats and gloves and lineup cards as his tools of the trade. These are the instruments the soon-to-be-86-year-old utilizes daily as he slowly battles back from a stroke he suffered last Thanksgiving.
It’s been a tough road, learning how to walk again, but loved ones and Alto’s physical therapists have dangled an enticing carrot in front of him: become a little more ambulatory and we’ll take you out to a ballgame at Frontier Field. For a man who has been going to ballparks since he was a teenager taking the six-cent trolley ride to Detroit’s Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium, this is a powerful incentive. Returning to Frontier—a ballpark he helped get built—would be quite special, a huge milestone.
“I hope to get back there soon,’’ says the kind-hearted man who has called Rochester home since showing up as a slugging, left-handed hitting first baseman for the Wings in 1963. “That’s my goal. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Alto has made at least 10,000 trips to the ballpark in his lifetime, but this trek would be as meaningful as any of them. It would rank up there with those times in 1971 and 1974, when he was managing the Red Wings to Governors’ Cup championships at old Silver Stadium on Norton Street. Or those games in 1983 at the now-defunct Memorial Stadium, when he was leading Baltimore to its last World Series title.
“It would be exciting,’’ he says.
Alto yearns to hear the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd and the strains of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” by long-time organist Fred Costello. He would love to sink his teeth into a Zweigle’s hot dog slathered in mustard. And it would do his heart good to see those smiling, energetic kids scrambling to snag foul balls with their gloves.
“There’s something about going to the ballpark that rejuvenates you,’’ Alto told me 10 years ago, during happier, healthier times. “It never gets old.”
He is fortunate to have his kids and his loving companion, Michele DiGaetano, encouraging him every step of the way along this comeback trail. “We’re getting there, aren’t we honey? Slow and steady wins the race,’’ she says, affectionately, as Alto watches a rerun of the old television cowboy series, “Bonanza.
Pretty much every morning, after breakfast, he is helped from his wheelchair and grabs hold of his walker. With the coaching of Michele and his therapist, he begins the slow walk out of his room and down the hallway. Somedays he goes farther than others. By the end of the trek, he’s usually whipped. His rehabilitation regiment also requires him to do some light weight training to strengthen both his legs and arms. And, on other days, he and his therapist bat around a blue balloon as if it were a volleyball.
During each workout, Michele reminds him of that carrot, that trip to Frontier Field.
“It’s still a difficult process for him trying to become ambulatory again, but he’s making good progress, and he’s the same good-spirited Joe he’s always been,’’ she says. “The stroke didn’t affect his speech, but it did affect his leg. He’ll probably always need the wheelchair, but we want him to try to use the walker, too. It’s good for him.”
Michele had hoped to take Alto to the Wings season opener Friday evening, but the frigid forecast is prompting her to wait.
“Even though he would be sitting in a suite, we’d like him to be able to go outside for an inning or two to watch the game,’’ she says. “We want his return to be an enjoyable experience. We don’t want to be freezing to death.”
So, that hot dog and those joyous ballpark sights, sounds and aromas may have to wait a bit longer.
In the meantime, the beloved man known as Rochester’s “Mr. Baseball” will continue working on his rehab and reminisce about the good times. There were many of them, and Alto looks forward to experiencing many more.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. You can send get-well cards and letters to Joe Altobelli at Edna Tina Wilson Living Center, 700 Island Cottage Road, Rochester, NY 14612.